[Paleopsych] Safire: Vegan

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Sun Jan 30 18:47:46 UTC 2005

On Language by William Safire, New York Times Magazine, 5.1.30
January 30, 2005

[I do not know how much longer his language columns will continue. He 
ended his political column last week.

    "By all that is sacred in our hopes for the human race,'' wrote the
    passionate poet Percy Bysshe Shelley in 1813, ''I conjure those who
    love happiness and truth, to give a fair trial to the vegetable
    system.'' The cardinal rule of that blithe spirit: ''Never take any
    substance into the stomach that once had life.''

    That philosophy of diet was first recorded by Pythagoras of Samos who
    munched on his veggies around the fifth century B.C., with Greek
    philosophers like Plato, Epicurus and Plutarch embracing fleshless
    eating with enthusiasm. A few decades after Bish's endorsement (the
    teenager he seduced and later married, Mary Wollstonecraft's daughter,
    called him Bish), the diet was being called vegetarian, a word
    popularized by the formation of the vegetarian Society at Ramsgate,
    England, in 1847. After its planting, that word grew (from the Latin
    vegetare, ''to grow'') for a century.

    Then along came the Yorkshireman Donald Watson, a woodworker in
    Britain and a devotee of greens, who was looking for a name for his
    newsletter. ''We should all consider carefully,'' he wrote his early
    subscribers in 1944, ''what our Group, and our magazine, and
    ourselves, shall be called.'' He was tired of typing the long word
    vegetarian thousands of times and believed nondairy was too negative:
    ''Moreover it does not imply that we are opposed to the use of eggs as
    food. We need a name that suggests what we do eat.'' He rejected
    vegetarian and fruitarian as ''associated with societies that allow
    the 'fruits'(!) of cows and fowls.'' (That's milk and eggs; the poet
    Robert Lowell wrote in 1959 of a ''fly-weight pacifist,/so vegetarian,
    /he wore rope shoes and preferred fallen fruit.'')

    Watson suggested to his readers that the newsletter be called The
    Vegan News. ''Our diet will soon become known as a vegan diet, and we
    should aspire to the rank of vegans.''

    As his subscribers swallowed his coinage, Watson promptly made it an
    -ism : ''Veganism is the practice of living on fruits, nuts,
    vegetables, grains and other wholesome nonanimal products.'' He thus
    dissociated his strict -ism from that of vegetarianism, a less
    rigorous regime that usually permits the eating of eggs, dairy
    products and honey, as well as the wearing of animal products like
    leather, wool and silk. (To get the vitamin B12 in animal products,
    many vegans drink fortified soy milk or take a vitamin pill. Mother's
    milk is permitted for babies.)

    Vegetarian has another offshoot besides the aforesaid fruitarian:
    ''Pescetarian is a frequently used term for those alleged veggies who
    eat seafood (but not meat or fowl),'' noted a writer in The Guardian
    in 2002, ''and irritate meat eaters and genuine vegetarians the world

    One who exclusively noshes on crudités (a Yiddish-English-French
    phrase) is called a rawist. Also coined in the early 90's is
    flexitarian, one who eats vegetarian dishes at home but will go along
    with meat, fish or fowl in a restaurant or as a guest. (A food
    pollster would call these loosey-goosey gourmands swing eaters.)

    In the recent presidential campaign, Ralph Nader revealed his food
    flexitarianism -- no meat, but fish is O.K. -- while Representative
    Dennis Kucinich firmly asserted his status as a vegan. The strict term
    can be politically parodied: the humorist Dave Barry, in a healing
    postelection column, urged readers not to stereotype red-state voters
    as ''knuckle-dragging Nascar-obsessed cousin-marrying
    roadkill-eating'' rednecks, nor blue-state voters as ''tofu-chomping
    holistic-wacko neurotic vegan weenie perverts.''

    Vegan, too, has its offshoot: a freegan is an anticonsumerist who eats
    only what others throw away. Unlike a dumpster diver, a freegan (hard
    g) limits his scrounging to edibles. I believe this term is too close
    to euphemisms for copulation to be more than a nonce word.

    Do not confuse the noun vegan with the intransitive verb to veg out.
    The latter is based on vegetate, ''to exist passively,'' coined in
    that sense by the playwright Colley Cibber in 1740. It means ''to
    droop into such a state of insensibility as to appear to become a

    My problem with vegan, now affirmatively used as self-description by
    roughly two million Americans, is its pronunciation. Does the first
    syllable sound like the vedge in vegetable, with the soft g? Or is it
    pronounced like the name sci-fi writers have given the blue-skinned
    aliens from far-off Vega: VEE-gans or VAY-gans?

    For this we turn to the word's coiner: ''The pronunciation is
    VEE-gan,'' Watson told Vegetarians in Paradise, a Los Angeles-based
    Web site, last year, ''not vay-gan, veggan or veejan.'' He chooses the
    ee sound followed by a hard g. That's decisive but not definitive;
    some lexicographers differ, and pronunciation will ultimately be
    determined by the majority of users.

    I'll go along with the coiner's pronunciation of VEE-gan. He's a
    charmingly crotchety geezer who began as a vegetarian. ''When my older
    brother and younger sister joined me as vegetarians, nonsmokers,
    teetotalers and conscientious objectors,'' Watson says, ''my mother
    said she felt like a hen that had hatched a clutch of duck eggs.'' He
    obviously inherited her feel for language. I'm a carnivore myself --
    an animal that delights in eating other animals -- but won't treat
    this guy like a fad-diet freak: Watson has a major coinage under his
    belt, and he's a spry 94.

    Send comments and suggestions to: [1]safireonlanguage at nytimes.com.

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